If it can be fried or smoked or put on a stick, chances are it’s on the menu at the North Carolina State Fair.
In this wonderland of endless calories, no one asks if something should or needs to exist, knowing only that it does makes it beautiful.
This year, 22 vendors will bring nearly 30 new dishes to the fair, which is Oct. 11 to 21 at the NC State Fairgrounds, adding nacho cheese-dipped bacon and Texas Pete-glazed doughnuts to the bounty of turkey legs and deep fried cheesecake.
Monday, members of the media sampled a dozen of the new dishes that were announced Friday.
Some dishes we anticipated weren’t there, so we can’t give an educated opinion on Unicorn Bacon, Unicorn Apples or Texas Pete Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Though our blood pressure may not be stable, and we could use a really long walk, we picked our favorites.
This year, we had some professional input. Raleigh chef Cheetie Kumar of Garland, a downtown Raleigh restaurant blending Indian and Asian ingredients, joined The News & Observer contingent as we ate our way through Dorton Arena. Kumar, a James Beard Award nominee, just cooked a multi-course meal Sept. 25 at the James Beard House in New York, one of the highest honors in the food industry. She also has cooked for Robert Plant, when the Led Zepplin frontman stopped by for a post-concert midnight snack in February.
She weighed in as we picked our favorite new dishes.
1. Jerk pork wrap from Cool Runnings Jamaican
This year’s media favorite — and the favorite of Kumar and our tasters — is the jerk pork and mango salsa with lettuce and tomato wrapped up in a flour tortilla. Cool Runnings owners Andrea and Stephen Millington have been serving Jamaican food at the fair for nearly two decades, debuting jerk spare ribs last year and jerk wings the year before.
This year’s pork wrap hits with a heat that demands your attention, building and warming with each bite. The sweetness of a chunky mango salsa balances the spice, and suddenly it no longer feels like we’re talking about food from the North Carolina State Fair.
“This is from the new North Carolina,” Kumar said.
Where to find it: By the waterfall on the north end of Dorton Arena
2. Arepa burger from Arepa Loca
The encore from last year’s media favorite fully embraces the possibility of fair food, of taking a beloved thing and remaking it so it’s new yet familiar.
Here it’s two beloved things, a traditional griddled arepa stuffed with the usual burger fixings, ground beef, tomato and onions. But Arepa Loca tops it all with fried potato sticks for some added crunch, riffing on a burger with fries, then adds their two sauces, a tangy “pink sauce” and spicy, herby cilantro green sauce.
Where to find it: In Kiddieland near the Ferris Wheel
3. Crack-n-Cheese in a waffle cone from Hickory Tree BBQ
Waffles aren’t just for syrup and ice cream anymore. This isn’t the debut of Crack-n-Cheese, which is a rendition of beloved macaroni and cheese dressed up with barbecue, but we haven’t seen it like this. Hickory Tree specializes in barbecued turkey, and at this year’s fair they’re putting their smoked turkey atop mac & cheese, with finely chopped sweet slaw, barbecue sauce and cracklins, all served in a waffle cone.
The waffle cone, both the beauty and the slight pitfall of this carby wonder, gives eaters the option to forego a fork and go completely handheld. But if you’re eating the cone, know that it’s the old-fashioned ice cream kind, spiked with vanilla that Kumar found distracting. Sub in a scratch-made waffle with jalapenos or hot sauce and we might have a new fair classic.
Where to find it: On the west end of the Education Building, near Kiddieland
4. Candied bacon s’mores from La Farm Bakery
Can s’mores be elegant? Is it still a s’mores if you’re not licking charred marshmallow goo from your fingertips? Apparently yes.
The campfire feels far away when biting into this chocolate dipped, house-made marshmallow sandwiched between two baked graham crackers, all topped with candied bacon. You won’t find the char from having to blow out a flaming marshmallow at the end of a stick, but these are kissed with the flame of a blowtorch. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it earns its merit badge in bacon. Look for an extra gooey surprise inside the marshmallow.
Where to find it: Near the south side of Dorton Arena, by Gate 1.
Other bites to look for
Cluck Puppies from Chick-N-Que
There are a trio of new hush puppies, from sweet to savory, and Cluck Puppies are the best, as well as the best named. These are lightly fried, not the hard crunch of a usual hush puppy and stuffed with barbecue chicken. Dip in habanero ranch if you can handle the heat.
Other hush puppies new to the fair are country ham and cheddar cheese hush puppies and chocolate chip hush puppies, both from Ragin’ Cajun.
Texas Pete Krispy Kreme doughnuts from S2 Concessions
These curiosities skipped media day, but were still one of the most talked-about dishes in the room. A hot sauce-glazed doughnut made from two of North Carolina’s culinary treasures is a question that needs an answer.
Shrimp and grits eggroll from Woody’s Sports Tavern & Grill
This is the land of shrimp and grits, of a nationally trendy dish likely done better in the Carolinas than anywhere on earth. So a dunk in the deep fryer seems like the fitting fair treatment.
This is one of the most creative dishes in the fair menu, but may not measure up to its inspiration. Grits aren’t easy to make, and even with the luxury of a stovetop, can sometimes come out dense. Bring in a deep fryer and wonton wrappers, and these can get dense, largely losing the grits along the way.
But the shrimp tastes sweet and fresh, and the red pepper remoulade adds some moisture, making it potentially worthwhile when it’s plucked fresh from the fryer.
For the full rundown of new foods at the NC State Fair, visit the state fair website.